Fly on the Wall—The Banality of Righteousness

Learning and the Roots of Evil

It is dangerous to read newspapers” wrote Margaret Atwood in the late 60s.  What she meant was clear: the establishment couldn’t be trusted to tell the truth or even to veer away from doing the wrong thing.

During the Vietnam war the contradictions of the world were inescapable for a generation whose access to this same world was limited to ubiquitous institutions like Time magazine and the evening news.  So today we’re free of such limits, right? Not quite, our culturally constructed assumptions about the world and ourselves still lead us to believe that we successfully arbitrate right from wrong and can tease out truth from propaganda.  The fact that a single monopolistic corporation has successfully had their name, Google, become synonymous with the action phrase ‘to look up truth as one would rifle through an encyclopedia’ kind of says it all about our cultural blindness to nefarious tendencies sleeping in our midst and minds.  We recoil at the scent of evil but is life really that simple?

Horrific evil, the darkest and most conscious acts of sadism known to our species, occurs in the tangible physical world.  By actions, conscious reality realizes itself.  Dahmer killed and ate his victims.  Picton treated oppressed women of the Downtown Eastside like meat for his pig farm slaughterhouse.  And Hitler blamed ethnic groups like Jews, and social movements like communism, on the imagined loss of an original German nation.  NAZI ideology is baloney in the eyes of history and yet our present century flows with an undercurrent of fear that preposterous falsifications of reality could return to the halls of power and the ivory towers of higher learning.  We fear the acts that our minds imagine.  But are we living what we fear and bringing it to fruition unconsciously? Let’s consider how we’d appear to those we perceive as our enemies; after all, we’re all human and our emotional sentiments precede their manifestation in actual practice.

Facts of the Acts: Minds Matter

While our darker sides do not degenerate into evil actions, we do live out the world our mind inhabits.  “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.  And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you” wrote Friedrich Nietzsche.

Let’s face the fact that we each may desire some of the things we fear the most—not at the literal, conscious, level—but in an unconscious language of entitlement.  And nothing says entitlement like the demand to be free of ideas that harm our imagined consensual utopia.  Our human egos tend to think that they ought to inhabit a hassle-free existence.  And yet, whenever we banish a thought or an idea or a dream without looking it in the eye, we risk allowing it to flourish under the radar of our common assumptions.  Obama, misunderstood by many who don’t read his actual words, stated that “I don’t agree that you, when you become students at colleges, have to be coddled and protected from different points of view.”   So, really, why do we feel that we have a right to be rid of what we find repulsive?

Selfish Disguised as Self-Less?

The truth is, as my Grade 7 teacher loved to remind us, that children are born selfish.  Not by choice but by necessity, to be sure.  As adults we tend to roar with righteousness, like chimps being fed in an un-egalitarian manner at a zoo, whenever something irks our impulses.  Like toddlers, the world can appear to us as a litany of extremes and extreme prejudice.  But there’s a reason why Ronald Reagan famously upbraided professors at Berkeley for encouraging students to attack the system.  He said: “some of you are old enough to know better!”

AU, being essentially a return to the core of our schooldays of yore, leads us to ask whether we are really the adulting adults in the room.  This is one reason why AU studies can be such a humbling experience: we are left with no one to blame but ourselves as we re-learn some timeless truths about motivation and prioritization.

We realize that we can be our own worst enemy, procrastination-wise.  As with lists of gratitude discarded at the first signs of adversity, distance education tests our mettle and our ability to keep promises to ourselves when nobody’s watching.  The truths we make of our lives are ours alone; for them to be realized we cannot censor unpleasant content such as that perhaps we aren’t quite the academic savants we thought we were!

Boredom And Other Evils.  Oh, Wait.

The question in 2020 is not whose story to believe, for in the end all interpretation revolves around our individual assessments of our lives, but how to assess information rather than dismissing contrary details out of hand.

Here lies a key sociological premise of truth: reality is an ongoing construct of our active, even over-active, imaginations.  We don’t even realize how much time we spend filling in the blanks of our perception with beliefs we’ve picked up, virus-like, in our lived experience.  We are thinking beings who learn not to keep the world the same in our minds forever like apes who are taught how to use a stick to retrieve tasty termites and then pass on this exact traditional knowledge down through the generations.  No, we humans learn to advance or, more realistically, to prestidigitate the world and our role within it.  The magic’s in the making, as the phrase goes.  Creative thinking within the confines of our expectations is only the baseline of learning; if we stay in those starting blocks, we’re prone to believing that school is actually as boring as we remember it to be.  Taking boredom as an evil to be avoided leads us to fall into the same selfish trap as leads us to censor truths inconvenient for our worldview.  The truth is, we cannot expect a life without struggle or a world without unpleasantness.

We participate in the good and the evils of the world but they are presented in palatable ways such that the real evil appears somehow distant from our daily existence.  A recent book by Israeli sociologist, Iva Illouz, suggests that we become cogs in a machine of social oppression without even knowing it: we all have a little fascist within us, so to speak, one that’s prone to “an undiagnosed but latent disease of regular, ordinary human beings.”    However, this darker side to our nature in no way pronounces us innocent of participating in social crimes both large and small.

From slut-shaming to social media time-wasting, we at AU are especially prone to finding ourselves drawn into the vulgar nether world of simplified morality.  We’re swimming in college-kid waters, after all, but we can keep our brains afloat if we remember that, if a sentiment feels natural, that doesn’t make it right.  And remember, we’re not like the rest of the university population in this country.  We’ve taken on a task that, in many ways, is far more difficult than what faces the average student.  Returning to school as an adult is about attacking something that others only talk about.  If we believe in the powers of education, then our course work becomes morality in practice.

Boredom Isn’t the Same as Oppression

History is replete with people doing boring jobs that upheld an awful regime.  Adolph Eichman, (whose role in the system of holocaust terror was a more horrific version of an accountant deciding how many jobs to be cut based on lost profits attributed to novel coronavirus or a Wall Street decline) appeared to some as a mere cog in a machine of evil.

And yet, Hannah Arendt in an explanation of her powerful book about the holocaust titled The Banality of Evil, wrote: “when, many years ago, I described the totalitarian system and analyzed the totalitarian mentality, it was always a ‘type,’ rather than individuals, I had to deal with, and if you look at the system as a whole, every individual person becomes indeed ‘a cog small or big,’ in the machinery of terror.  It is the great advantage of court procedure that it inevitably confronts you with the person and personal guilt I wanted to know: Who was Eichmann? What were his deeds insofar as he was a free agent? …  And it is for this reason that the whole small cog theory is quite irrelevant in this context.”

Our individual roles are framed not by what we do within the systems in which we abide, but how we interpret the whole system.  Education is about finding perspective and thinking critically.  Common sense gives way to the subtle dense weave of textbooks and the ambiguous reality of truth.  Whereas we may once have thought that intuition gives us the truth we’re seeking, we come to realize that intuition, like our taste in fashion, was forged prior to the emergence of our consciousness and thus has a built-in framework of limitations.  The only evil we have to fear is the fear to face the close-mindedness within ourselves that has been naturalized by an education we weren’t aware we were receiving.

References

Atwood, M.  (2020).  Margaret Atwood: Encounters.  CBC Gems.  Retrieved from https://www.cbc.ca/cbcdocspov/m_episodes/margaret-atwood-encounters

Nietzsche, F.  (2020).  BrainyQuote.  Retrieved from https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/friedrich_nietzsche_124387.

Schowe, A.  (2015).  ‘Obama defends free speech in comments on campus protests’.  Washington Examiner.  Retrieved from https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/obama-defends-free-speech-in-comments-on-campus-protests.

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